My sister’s husband died recently, and sorrow has made her a little girl again. Although she’s thirty-nine, I keep catching glimpses of her little-girl face, the one I know from old photographs and junior-high yearbooks. She’s lost weight, and that adds to the impression, contributes to this parade of unbidden memories from when we were kids growing up outside Boston. She was the bony brunette sister, the reader in the family, pretty with high cheekbones and a blunt way with words. I was the oldest, blond, the people pleaser.
I’m visiting her in California, trying to help out with the kids. There are three girls: fraternal twins who are six, and another girl who’s four. The day after her husband died, my sister took her children to a field of daffodils a few blocks from their house, spread out a blanket, and had them sit down. The sun was high and bright. She told them, and the more outgoing twin said, “How soon do we get a new daddy?” The shy one said, “I knew it.” The youngest asked if she could go play on the tire swing.
The house my sister lives in was undergoing major renovations when her husband died, so she and I and the kids are all crammed into the casita, a small guesthouse in the back, beside the pool. The main house is stately, elegant — tragic. The perfect setting for something heartbreaking to happen. How could we not have seen it before? It looks like an old plantation house, with white columns and a second-story balcony. The workmen have cleared out all the rooms; there’s a plastic tarp over the piano and dust everywhere. Dust coats the soles of your feet.
My sister has found some comfort in the widow discussion boards on the Internet. One of them has a list of “Ten Helpful Hints for Getting through This Most Difficult Time in Your Life.” Hint Number 7: Learn to Expect the Unexpected. “Expect to cry at odd times: at the sight of a couple holding hands, at the sound of the doorbell ringing.”
The bit about the doorbell got to me. As if, somewhere in your psyche, some part of you thinks he’s come home — and then you remember. My sister doesn’t wait for the doorbell. After the girls are asleep, she walks the stone path to the empty house, lies down on the floor of what used to be her master bedroom, and wails. I hear her, but I don’t join her; I don’t know how to join her. When the doctor delivered the final news, I put my hand against her back. “Don’t touch me,” she said quietly.
The pair of tulip trees outside the casita are in bloom. I’ve never seen them blooming before; I must never have been here at this time of year. It’s not that my sister and I aren’t close, but we live on opposite coasts. I usually come to visit only on holidays. Lately my sense of humor has taken a sardonic, self-deprecating turn, and when I first heard about the helpful hints, I nearly said: Expect the sister, the one you had almost given up on, to come for a visit and actually stay for a while.
I take the girls to the International House of Pancakes so my sister can sleep in. She’s exhausted, and the Lexapro makes it worse. I don’t have any children of my own, so my mothering skills are a little ad hoc. I know there are lines that need to be drawn; I just never know where to draw them. At least at the House of Pancakes, there are no chopsticks. At the Chinese restaurant last week the waiter gave the girls chopsticks made of hardened plastic, then acted surprised when they used them like drumsticks against their plates and started mock-stabbing one another. The way I see it, give a six-year-old a chopstick at your own peril. I know that elsewhere on the planet there are girls their age who have been using chopsticks skillfully for years. But with their blond hair and blue eyes, these girls couldn’t look less Asian. They don’t even look like my sister. They look as if they were born to me.
Now we’re sitting at a booth just inside the revolving door. The four-year-old is in a booster seat she doesn’t need, but I’m letting her use it anyway. They are coloring farm scenes with the nubs of crayons.
“Tell us the story again,” says the outgoing twin. During the car ride over, she has asked that we call her Coco.
“Which one?” I say.
Coco rolls her eyes. “About the chicken,” she says. The shy twin slides her paper place mat away from her but holds on to her crayon. The youngest one continues drawing.
“Your father was doing orientation for his new consulting job,” I say.
“What’s the o word mean again?” Coco asks.
“When they make you do things to fit in with the group.”
The shy twin tilts her head. “What’s the other o word?”
“What other o word?”
“The one you taught us before. About God knowing everything.”
“Omniscient,” I say, and the girls grin. “So. Your father was at orientation, and there was a scavenger hunt. The assignment they gave his team was to find the freshest meat in Chinatown. And your daddy, because he was so smart, figured out a surefire way to win.” The girls start giggling. They know what’s coming. “The next morning he showed up at company headquarters with a live chicken on a leash!”
When the waiter arrives, I let them order whatever they want: stacks of pancakes topped with whipped cream and blueberry sauce, piles of hash browns, sausage patties for each of them. I have my sister’s credit card in my purse. It has her husband’s name on it. When you call the house, you still hear her husband’s voice on the machine.
The waiter’s a lefty, and his wrist bends at an acute angle when he writes.
“My name is Coco,” says my niece.
“Pancakes for Coco,” the waiter says sweetly.
After he’s gone, the shy twin scoots back into a corner of the booth. “I want to be Saltine Teacup,” she says.
“Why, Saltine Teacup. What a pretty name,” I say.
The youngest one stops drawing. “I’m Pepper.”
I slide forward with my elbows on the table. “Did you know that Pepper was the name of a Dalmatian my mommy and daddy had when they were first married?” The girls shake their heads: they did not know. “I have a picture of them standing in front of a cottage by a lake with the Dalmatian in front. My mother’s wearing a white bikini with black polka dots. Can you guess why?”
“To go swimming?” Pepper says.
“To match the dog!” I say. Coco wrinkles her nose, and we laugh. After a pause they all start coloring again. Saltine Teacup looks up from her place mat. On the chest of the farmer in the picture she has drawn an enormous red heart.
“Our daddy’s with your daddy now,” she says.
I wipe a smudge from her cheek with my napkin. “That’s right,” I say.
When we get home, I let the girls pick what to do. First we bounce around on the trampoline; then I push them on the swings; then we ride in the Barbie cars, circling the pool. I’m amazed at the stamina my sister has secretly had all these years. When they ask if we can jump on the trampoline again, I suggest we play a game called “Auntie Takes a Nap.” I lie down on the bounce mat and close my eyes. Coco laughs and punches me in the chest.
“Ow,” I say. It hurt more than it should have. “Please don’t do that.” I pull up my shirt — I’m not wearing a bra — and dip my chin to examine myself. There’s a large purple bruise that covers my right breast. My niece’s eyes grow wide with horror, and she starts to cry.
“It’s OK, sweetie,” I say. I slide my shirt down, sit up, and rub her arm. “You didn’t do that. It was like that already.”
Before I flew out, I had to have a breast cyst aspirated. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced — the hypnotically thin needle, the oddly cheerful banter, the eerie amber fluid filling the reservoir. Had the doctor given me laughing gas? It felt as though he had, although I couldn’t quite remember. I remember telling him about my brother-in-law:
“One weekend he was skiing with his children, and a month later he was dead,” I said.
“And they don’t know how he contracted it?”
“No. Doesn’t staph live on our bodies all the time?”
“Yes, but . . . how’d it get into his blood?”
“Nobody knows,” I said. “Maybe the dentist? Or a puncture wound?” I looked at the needle, then at him, then we both became silent. He used the ultrasound on me when he was finished. Then he gave me an ice pack to stick in my bra and told me to cut down on my caffeine intake.
“Is that what causes cysts?”
“We don’t really know what causes them,” he said.
The body and its independent desires. A number of my childless friends have begun developing uterine fibroids over the past couple of years. It’s as if their wombs were saying: We don’t need you! We can make things all by ourselves!
After supper the girls change into their pajamas and brush their teeth. Their mother is asleep on a cot in the kitchen, and we all pile into the one big bed that’s actually three twin-size beds squished together. They like it when, instead of reading to them from a book, I make up a story based on an old photograph. They especially like the photos in which their mom and I are as young as they are now. I’ve brought a folder of them with me in my duffel bag.
“Who’s that?” they say.
“What’s wrong with your hair?”
“We had something called ‘perms.’ It was your mommy’s idea. We did them at home, and they smelled bad when we went swimming.”
Coco props her head on one elbow. “How bad?”
“They smelled like rotten fish. Like dead dragons. Like dead dragons who had eaten rotten fish!” I pause.
Coco squints. “What’s the matter?”
“I thought of a joke, but I don’t know if you’re old enough to hear it.”
“I don’t think you’re old enough.”
“Tell us,” they say. “Tell us, tell us!” Our father is dead. For God’s sake, tell us your joke. They don’t say these words, but I hear them.
“OK. A girl says to her boyfriend: ‘Does my breath smell like tacos?’ And she breathes on his face, like this.” I exhale enthusiastically. “Her boyfriend draws back and says: ‘I don’t know. Do you put cat shit on your tacos?’ ”
Three separate looks of astonishment. No laughter.
“You’re not supposed to use that word,” Saltine Teacup says.
“You guys made me tell you the joke.”
“That’s a naughty word,” says Pepper.
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.” And then I tell them how their mother and I used to scream over the bad words when we listened to the eight-track of Grease while our father drove us to private school in Cambridge.
I tuck the folder of pictures back into my duffel bag and turn out the light. Through the sliding glass doors we can see the leaves of the tulip trees shiver in the breeze.
“Let’s go outside, to pray,” Coco says.
“I think you’re supposed to be trying to fall asleep now,” I say. We’d have to walk through the kitchen to get outside, and I don’t want to wake their mother.
“Mommy won’t mind,” she says.
“Mommy will mind,” I tell her, but before I can say anything else, Coco has tiptoed through the kitchen and is opening the glass door.
She gets down on her knees on the concrete and prays to her father. The sky above her is a flock of stars.
“I love you, Tata,” she says. “You will always be the best daddy in the whole world. Always and forever and ever.”
I never saw a man more devoted to his kids than my brother-in-law. When he came home from work, at the sound of his voice there would be a stampede for the door.
I kneel beside her and take her hands. “Your father loved you very much,” I say.
“I know,” Coco says.
Suddenly her mother is standing over us. “That’s enough now,” she says. “It’s time for bed.”
After Coco is asleep, I hover awkwardly in the kitchen. “Can I make you some hot chocolate or anything?”
“No, thanks,” my sister says. “I’m not really hungry. I just want to try to get back to sleep.” And a moment later she’s on her cot again.
I don’t want to admit that our grieving has not brought us closer. If anything, it seems to have accentuated our differences. I believe in God; my sister does not. She lets me talk to her kids about God, and even wants them to take religious-education classes and receive their first communion, but I know it’s a strain for her. The strain has been added to of late: a couple cornered her at the funeral and said, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’ll never see your husband again.” I was flabbergasted when she told me; all I could do was shake my head and apologize. I assume these people mean well, but I suspect statements like that only drive my sister farther away.
The next morning the girls and I are back at the House of Pancakes: same booth, same sweet waiter. After he takes our order, he tells me I have beautiful children. This is a misperception I not only allow but encourage. I never correct the girls when they call me “Mommy.” They do so only when we’re out in public, and I get a secret thrill every time they do. When has motherhood ever come so cheap? None of the diapers, all of the fun. For years I’ve kept a list of places I want to take them when they’re older: the British Museum Reading Room; the garden at the Musée Rodin in Paris; Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè in Rome; the main hall at Union Station in Washington, DC, where the original sculptures of nude Roman sentries caused such a stir that now the sentries hold modesty shields in front of their private parts.
Driving home from the House of Pancakes, we listen to a CD of some of their father’s favorite songs, which were played during the video portion of his memorial: “Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam. “Live Forever” by Billy Joe Shaver. “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty. They know the words by now, and for a few verses we all sing along.
When we walk in the door, the phone starts to ring. “Maybe that’s Daddy calling from heaven!” Coco says.
I try to give my sister a look that says, I never suggested there were phones in heaven, but I don’t know if she gets it. She looks as if someone has just torn out her heart and handed her a box of ashes, which is exactly what someone has done. Her purse is over her shoulder, and she lets the machine take the call.
“I have to meet with my lawyer,” she says. “Can you watch the girls for a couple of hours?”
“Sure,” I say. “Of course.”
It’s started to rain, so I plant the kids in front of the TV. First they watch a show called The Wiggles. Then they want to watch The Sound of Music for the 170th time. “Edelweiss,” I’ll tell them someday, was my parents’ wedding song. While they sit in a row on the bed with their eyes glued to the screen, I lie on the floor and start to lean my head against my duffel bag. Before I do, I remove the folder of pictures and begin to flip through them. Here is my sister wearing pink plastic sunglasses in the shape of hearts. Here she is with her hair twisted in buns on the sides of her head like Princess Leia in Star Wars. Here she is holding a plate of cookies and carrots while I display a letter we’ve just written to Santa. Now she’s cradling a Siamese kitten like a baby.
Saltine Teacup climbs off the bed and comes over to lie down beside me. She may be quiet, but she sees. She sees everything.
“Why are you crying?” she says. I open my eyes, and on the screen two teenagers in a gazebo are about to kiss.
“It’s a sad movie,” I say.
My sister walks through the door holding a stack of mail, rain and tears streaking her face. Sometimes she lets herself cry in front of the girls — she wants them to know it’s all right to be sad — but it’s clear that this is not one of those times. Her keys thunk on the counter, and she turns in a circle. I can tell she wants to hide, or maybe throw up, but there’s nowhere to go. I usher the girls into the bedroom and give them my makeup kit to play with.
“What’s wrong?” I ask my sister, and I wonder if I have ever in my life asked a more idiotic question.
She hands me the stack of mail. On top is a doctor’s postcard addressed in her husband’s handwriting, a reminder for his yearly physical for work; he must have filled it out when he had his last checkup. For a second I’m vulnerable to the doorbell fantasy myself. Could he secretly be alive somewhere and sending himself postcards? Could he show up at the front door any minute?
“I don’t want this,” she says quietly. “I don’t want this life without him in it.” She weeps silently, standing in the center of the kitchen, her body trembling. The windows stream with rain. I stare beyond her at the refrigerator, not knowing what to do. It seems impossible that this has happened. There’s a magnet on the fridge that reads, instant human. just add coffee.
After she has cried for a bit, a formality enters her body. She straightens and says, “While I was at the lawyer’s dealing with the insurance, he suggested I redo my will.” She wipes her eyes, tucks her hair behind her ears. The tip of her nose is red, and once more she reminds me of herself from thirty years ago. “I need to know if you’d be willing to take the girls if anything ever happened to me.”
“Who else?” She sighs. “It’s OK if you don’t want to. You just have to say so.”
My body is frozen in place: feet on the tile floor, hands pressed against the counter. “I don’t know,” I say. “I’d have to think about that.”
My sister says nothing; the words I impute to her expression are: Well — think. The room we’re standing in begins to feel very, very small. I reach for the keys. “Is it all right if I use the car?”
“Sure,” she says. “The girls have ballet at five. Where are you going?”
“I was thinking of going to church.” Coco’s head pops out of the doorway. Her face is painted like a harlequin doll’s.
“I want to come to church,” she says. Going to church is one of our favorite things to do together. “Can I, Mommy?”
“You can’t go looking like that,” my sister says.
“Sure she can,” I say. A priest once told me a story about a homeless man who wandered into a cathedral and was stopped as he made his way down the aisle. “You can’t be in here without a shirt and shoes,” said the monsignor. The homeless man looked up at the figure on the cross. “He doesn’t have any,” he said.
Coco comes with me, but the other two girls stay home. On our way into town I toy with various answers to my sister’s proposal. They all contain the word but. “I love you, and I love my nieces more than anything, but . . .” But I’m not sure I can accept such an important responsibility. But I’m not sure I’m qualified. But I would be lying to you if I said I wanted to be a mother.
The church is nearly empty. Coco and I slide into a pew up front, near the banks of candles. She crosses herself twice before taking a seat, and I know it’s because she gets confused about whether it goes up-down-right-left or up-down-left-right, so she does both. I notice a glass case containing vessels of holy oil behind the altar, and it reminds me that there’s something I need to tell my sister, but I have no idea how to do it.
I glance around and am stunned that I’ve never before registered how maternal all the imagery in a Catholic church is. Everywhere you look, there’s a mother holding a baby. At five o’clock these pews will fill with a dozen or so parishioners, mostly older people — there have been times when the girls and I were the only ones without white hair — but for now it’s just us and a lone woman over by the shrine to the Sacred Heart. For a second she reminds me of a solitary, parallel-universe version of myself, and I think, Is that it, then? Is this the day I’ll look back on as the one on which the path of my life changed? I prop my hands against my forehead like a visor and pray my favorite one-word prayer: Help.
Coco wants to light a candle for her father. She does, and then we light one for my father, and one for those who have no one to pray for them. When the initial flare of the flames excites her, I briefly wonder if it’s a good idea to teach a six-year-old how to use matches. Then we bless ourselves with holy water and step out into the rain.
Driving home, we stop at a convenience store. We hurry through the doors, holding hands. “Mommy, may I please have a pack of rainbow-stripe gum?”
I let go of her hand. “Don’t call me that,” I say.
“But you love it when we call you Mommy.”
“Just — don’t call me that today.”
The man behind the counter eyes us with concern, no doubt skimming his memory for the faces on missing-children posters. I buy a stack of celebrity and fashion magazines to distract my sister, and he rings them up.
“Could I have a pack of American Spirits?” I say before I pay him. I can’t believe these words are coming out of my mouth. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in twelve years. “The yellow ones,” I say.
In the car I crack the windows and turn the air conditioning on high. We idle in the parking lot while nicotine hits all the dormant receptors in my brain.
“Don’t tell,” I say, exhaling. “And don’t ever smoke. It’s really bad for you.”
Coco starts to cough, and I think: This right here is why you have to say no.
“Can we listen to the music?” she says. She pushes the power button, and Bob Dylan starts to sing a melancholy song about heaven.
“What’s it like where Daddy is?” she says.
“I don’t know, honey. Please, don’t ask me questions like that.”
There have been days, other days, when I’ve sat in a car filled with music, with bright sun all around and a feeling of light flooding my veins, and thought, This is the closest I’ll come to heaven on earth. Now I’m sitting in the rain in a car that has all of my sister’s husband’s suits, belts, and shoes in the trunk. “I couldn’t decide which would be less painful,” she told me. “To keep them, or to give them away.”
I lean my forehead against the steering wheel, and Coco rubs my back. She doesn’t ask what’s the matter; she must be getting accustomed to adults behaving oddly.
“You have to follow your own path in life,” I say. “Even if it feels guilty or selfish or wrong. It’s the only way to live.”
When we get home, Saltine Teacup runs to greet me. She wraps her arms around my waist and hides her face in my belly. I place my hand against her head, which is exactly where the baby’s head would be if I were pregnant.
My sister and I lock eyes above her, and the words just come out. “I’ll do it,” I say.
After the girls are asleep, I hear my sister in the old, empty house, keening. It is a sound both fresh and ancient; my sister has joined a lineage of women she never wished to be a part of. Someday, I think, I’ll tell her. Then I realize that someday is today.
She’s lying on the floor of the master bedroom in the dark. She must have heard me enter the house, because she’s stopped crying. I halt in the doorway.
“Can I come in?”
“Sure,” she whispers. I walk over and lie down beside her. From the ceiling, electrical cords and metal tubes coil out of the sheetrock like snakes.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” I say. With no furniture in the room my voice has an unexpected echo. “I did something, in the hospital.” I hesitate. “I probably should have asked your permission first.” My sister doesn’t say anything, so I keep talking. I tell her how, one day, in between when the stroke damaged his brainstem and when he died, I anointed her husband. I gave him unction. I have some holy oil that was blessed by the bishop who performed my confirmation, and I’d brought it with me on the plane, in a plastic container that used to hold lip gloss. I describe how I dipped my fingers in the oil and laid them on her husband’s wrists, and on his feet, and on his side. I tell her how I made the sign of the cross on his forehead and blessed him. And how, at the end, I held my hand for a long time over his heart, his beautiful heart. I don’t tell her how unworthy I felt of the task, or how I remembered some lines of Annie Dillard’s and uttered them before I began: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. . . . There never has been.”
When I’ve finished, we both lie still in the silence. I can hear my pulse in my ears. My sister turns to me.
“You had no right to do that,” she says.
“I know. I guess I figured it wouldn’t do any harm.”
“You figured it wouldn’t do any harm? That’s why you did it?”
My eyes have adjusted, and I can see now that the room is filled with pale moonlight. “I loved him too, you know,” I say.
“You loved him from a distance,” my sister says. “Your favorite way to love.”
“In my world, we don’t show people we love them by pouring oil on them when they die. We show people we love them by spending time with them when they’re alive.”
I don’t have an answer to that, so I stand up.
“Why don’t you leave,” my sister says.
“No, I mean — why don’t you go home.”
The next morning, when I wake up, I find a napkin on top of the folder of pictures.
“I’m sorry,” my sister has written. “Please stay.” I pick it up and carry it with me into the kitchen, where she’s sitting at the computer.
“You’re sorry?” I say. “What are you sorry for? I’m sorry!”
“Thank you for being here,” she says. “I appreciate it.”
I put my hand on her shoulder, and this time, she lets it remain.
She stands up. “Where’d you get those pictures?”
“I stole them from Mom.”
“Would you mind if I scanned them into the computer?”
“Not at all.”
She gets the folder and begins to scan them one by one while I sit with her. When she’s done with my photos, she picks up a framed wedding photograph from her desk: she and her husband under a canopy of leaves, nose to nose. She unscrews the back and removes the photo. Then she places it facedown and leaves her palm against it while the light rolls by. Everything around us reeks of life: the blooming tulip trees, the fresh coffee brewing, the sun-dappled pool. I hear voices, and a moment later the kids are spilling into the room. Coco opens the refrigerator. Pepper clambers into my lap. Saltine Teacup’s eyes are even bluer when she first wakes up. She takes one of the photos from her mother’s stack.
“What’s this?” she says.
“That’s the house we lived in when you were first born,” my sister says.
“It is?” she says. She doesn’t remember anything from that time; she was too young.
My sister’s husband, aware of how sick he was, said near the end, “But if I die now, the girls won’t remember me.”
“That’s the house where they tried to make your daddy cut his hedge,” I say, “but then he went around and took pictures of the hedges of all the city-council members, and they stopped.”
My sister smiles. I haven’t seen her smile in so long.
“We will always tell you stories about your father,” I say to the girls. “You won’t ever forget him.” When they’re old enough, I will tell them how, when he died, their mother said to him, “You were the best thing that ever happened to me,” and climbed into the hospital bed and lay down beside him. Someday I will tell them about the hiking trip where he spontaneously stripped off all his clothes and jumped into the Merced River. Someday I’ll tell them how I once saw him change a diaper with one hand after he’d broken his wrist, and I thought, Now I’ve seen everything. Someday I will let them read this story.
A different version of this story first appeared in Alethea Black’s I Knew You’d Be Lovely, published by Broadway Books. Copyright © 2011 by Alethea Black. Reprinted by permission of International Creative Management, Inc.